August 18, 2017 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES

What is ‘Populist Internationale?’

Last year, we have witnessed how following events created a maelstrom in contemporary global politics: Austria’s suspense-filled election (in April for the first round and in May for the second round) that almost gave the presidency to the far-right party (in December 2016), Freedom Party of Austria (with Norbert Gerward Hofer as candidate); electoral success of populist leaders like Rodrigo Roa Duterte (Philippines) in May 2016 and Donald Trump (US) in November 2016; and, the controversial referenda of Brexit (in June 2016) that saw how the Brexit vote redefined the future of UK and of Italy’s refusal to amend the constitution (in December 2016) to simplify their political system. Undeniably, these events caused a great deal of paranoia among journalists, pundits, serious scholars, and people from all walks of life. Despite some setbacks, many now recognize the threat of “Populist International” among democratic and democratizing societies. But what is this “Populist International” anyway? What endures its growth and expansion these days?


“Populism,” historically speaking, is a political orientation that gives emphasis on what the people want (over what the people should want, as what its long-time foe, the “oligarchs” or “optimates” or elites, would have it their way) in public affairs. Over the centuries, this orientation evolved into something that articulates the simplistic juxtaposition of something that is deplorable or unacceptable with what is palatable or acceptable to the people.

Nowadays, this orientation was deepened and further elaborated by the ideational “us-versus-them” antagonism, which is akin to Carl Schmitt’s conceptualization of “friend-enemy” distinction that played a major role in the rise and eventual popularity of Nazism in Germany. The concept, therefore, should also be understood as something that embodies the growing cynicism and disillusionment of the general populace toward the familiar and what is known in today’s politics -- an oligarchic rule of the political elites, intrusion of the business interest in the government, widespread inequality, recurring problem of corruption, etc.

In addition to this, “populism” also connotes the element of “opportunity” or an opening for intervention. This element of “opportunity,” in other words, allows a populist to exploit the moment, consolidate political resources and reverse the diffusion of power in the government. The aim of the populist leader, most of the time, is to centralize power and to change the status quo. This populism, as we have seen in the past, allowed powerful politicians such as Caesar, Robespierre, Cromwell, Mussolini, Hitler, among others, to be worshipped, glorified and catapulted to power by a vast majority of the people.

The term “international” basically is a contemporary understanding among scholars that depicts an emerging pattern among democratic/democratizing societies where rightist parties are becoming populist in orientation, or politicians who have populist tendencies (including leftist figures may be included here) are elected to office. At the turn of the new millennium, known comparativists and political theorists such as Margaret Canovan, Ben Stanley, Paul Taggart, Cas Mudde, among others, began a serious discussion about this phenomenon following the political events that defined European politics of 1980s-1990s and the paranoia that was caused by the terror attacks of 1990s-2000s. To these scholars, the internationalization of populism involves the global spread of populist-right gains these past decades: party mobilizations (such as the emergence of the British UKIP; reconsolidation of the French National Front in the late 1980s, to name a few), favorable party electoral outcomes (seats gained by rightist parties from the local and national elections in Austria, Germany, Belgium, among others), and policy priorities (such as on immigration, trade, and foreign relations, etc.).

With the recent loss of Geert Wilders’ Partij voor de Vrijheid -- PVV (Party for Freedom) in the last Dutch parliamentary elections (held in March 2017) and Marine Le Pen’s failure to consolidate her votes to win the French presidential elections (April and May 2017), we now ask, what is the future of “Populist International?”

Upon closer look, these losses reveal a more startling reality for the future of “Populist International.” For one, the loss can be interpreted as a building up of support that will be vital for future elections. Looking at the results of these two elections and comparing them with the previous ones, one can easily notice the growth of electoral base for these two populist-right parties. Also, it can be construed as indicative of a new political base that can influence policy making in those democratic societies. Again, by looking at the steady increase in numbers, these populist-right parties have indeed become a major contender on issues during off-election seasons.

Furthermore, the future of “Populist International” basically will depend on how governments and other stakeholders will confront traditional media’s erratic response to the ongoing efforts to undermine their work and destroy their credibility. While most media institutions have become bold in engaging the attacks head-on, others, unfortunately are exploiting the moment to increase their popularity and approval. Through weak media and the proliferation of “alternative facts” and fake news, the populist narrative will certainly continue to play an important role in domestic politics and foreign relations.

Additionally, societies today have yet to understand the full potential of social media vis-à-vis democratic deepening. Having said this, the ambivalence of social media (on whether they facilitate democratization or normalization of anti-democratic tendencies) will continuously be used in the years to come by populist figures and parties for their mobilizing efforts, propaganda work (e.g. online trolling).

Most importantly, the widespread the disillusionment toward the “centrist” and “leftist” options will certainly continue to feed the populist imagination.

With the recent success of Matt Rutte in Netherlands and Emmanuel Macron in France should send a message to the liberals that winning an election these days is no longer handed on a silver platter. Leftists, on the other hand, should be more serious in deepening their democratic reforms and not to be distracted with their alliances with various political groups having different orientations. Again, this populist resurgence in contemporary global politics can be attributed with their betrayals in the late 20th century and early 2000s.

Arjan Aguirre is an Instructor at the Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences of the Ateneo de Manila University. He handles courses on Politics and Governance, History of Political Theory, Contemporary Political Theories, and Electoral Reforms in the Philippines.